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Ramadan vs Ramzan: A linguistic difference between Arabic and Urdu, not meaning, has led to the festival's two names

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, which marks the 'Hijra' or exodus of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina on 13 September, 622. In religious history, the month is significant, as the Quran was first communicated to the Prophet during Ramadan. The archangel Jibreel, who is referred to as 'Roohul Wajood' in the Quran, was the conduit of the first Quranic revelation upon the Prophet, an event which took place in a mountain cave Hira on a night referred to as the 'Laylat al-Qadr', or night of destiny. The Quranic revelation also established Prophet Muhammad as a 'paighambar' or the Messenger of Allah, entrusted with the wealth of faith and spirituality.

The revelation of the Holy Quran and the Prophethood of Muhammad is commemorated with a month of fasting during Ramadan, which became mandatory from the second year of the arrival of the Prophet in Medina. Fasting was familiar to the inhabitants of the Arab peninsula, many of whom were also Jewish and Christians, and the Quran indicates the purpose of fasting at Ramadan: "O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous." [Surah II - Verse 183].

2019 marks the 1440th year of the lunar calendar. Fasting during Ramadan is among the five pillars of Islam and foremost an act of self-purification which seeks to challenge the physical and spiritual endurance of the believer and upholds charity and kindness as a compulsory act of faith.

A day of fasting begins with a pre-dawn meal known as sehri and ends with a post-sunset meal known as iftar. All Muslims are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset, during which time one cannot eat, drink, or indulge in any kind of physical pleasure, immoral act, verbal abuse, violence or any form of physical or spiritual deterioration. In South Asia, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, fasting is referred to as roza/ rozha/ roja/ ruza/ oru, all of which originate from Farsi/Persian. Muslims in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore call fasting 'puasa', derived from the Sanskrit word 'upvaasa'. 'Puasa' is also used in parts of South East Asia, Indonesia, Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines.

 Ramadan vs Ramzan: A linguistic difference between Arabic and Urdu, not meaning, has led to the festivals two names

Representational image. Associated Press

Etymology

The word 'Ramadan' is derived from the Arabic root r-m-d or 'ramad', which means to be “intensely heated by the sun”. The connotation of the root terms ramad, ar-ramid, ramida or ramadah is heat, burning, ashes of fire or furnaces in summer and is comparable with the Mishnaic Hebrew 'remetz', which means hot ashes or embers. It is believed that originally, Ramadan/Ramzan fell during the summer season. Imām al-Zamarkhshari wrote that, “When they changed the names of the months from the ancient language, they named them according to the seasons in which they fell, and this month fell in the days of intense heat, that is why it was named Ramaḍān.” Metaphorically, however, the month of Ramadan is the month of the purgation of sins of believers. Imām Qurtubi notes that “it [this month] was named Ramaḍān because it purges the sins of people with righteous deeds.”

Ramadan/Ramzan in contemporary popular culture

The contrasting usage of the terms 'Ramzan' and 'Ramadan' foregrounds a differential in the usage of the letter 'zuad' which has the z sound in Urdu and d sound in Arabic, or 'duad'. In the Arabic script, the zuad becomes a hard consonant d sound in 'Ramadan', wherein the Persianate-Urdu pronunciation derives from a softer consonant z sound. 'Kasrat-e-Istimal' is an Urdu term which refers to the process wherein anything, in this case, a word or term may be modified or localised due to extensive use. In interactions on social media and internet-driven communication, one sees a barrage of greetings, memes and posts which use the d-sounding 'Ramadan', as opposed to the more localised z-sounding 'Ramazan'. In the media and popular culture too, the d-sounding 'Ramadan' proliferates, considering that the word has also long been in use in English-speaking cultures, which privilege the more authentic Arabic root word. For instance, the BBC in 2006 recommended “the pronunciation 'ram-uh-DAAN', although 'RAM-uh-dan' is also common. In some countries such as Turkey, the spelling and pronunciation is different: 'ram-uh-ZAHN' instead…” Even in non-Arabic cultures, while speaking in English or in socio-digital public communication, we tend to use 'Ramadan', whereas 'Ramzan' becomes a part of a more intimate and vernacular vocabulary.

The disparate uses of the terms 'Ramzan' and 'Ramadan', however, has in some cases been portrayed as an instance of linguistic bias and a corrosive byproduct of cultural nationalism, wherein the d-sounding usage is seen as a perpetuation of an Arabic-Wahhabised understanding of Islam, wherein the z-sounding usage is seen as an endorsement of a more secular, spiritual and Persianate-Indic Islam. This also mirrors the usage of the supposedly Arabic phrase 'Allah Hafiz' as against the Persianate 'Khuda Hafiz'. The alternate pronunciations of the term affect its meaning in no manner whatsoever, and is only a case of a minor linguistic fluctuation. Attaching any other problematic assumptions to the mere pronunciation of a term is highly unfortunate and deflects from the greater motivations of peace, love, kindness and self-reflection, which should be the sole motivation for any Muslim during this blessed month.

Shahwar Kibria is a PhD scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research interests include Sufism and contemporary film, media and contemporary post-digital audio-visual cultures

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Updated Date: May 09, 2019 10:14:45 IST